Rupert Parker gets a taste of Africa in a new popup restaurant in Mayfair.
Papa L’s Kitchen is a new popup, a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus offering what they call African Fusion Cuisine. The premises were previously an Italian restaurant but now the walls are decorated with African artworks and there’s a cool vibe across its two floors. On a Friday night, the place is pleasantly packed and the punters are murdering the signature cocktails.
Most of them it seems are veterans of Chef Lawrence Gomez’s other popups, but his new venture will be here until October at least. He’s from the Gambia but has worked in London restaurants for 15 years including stints at the Ivy, Scott’s and Sexy Fish. He clearly knows what he’s doing and tells us each dish has been designed to represent both his culture and career on a plate.
In fact, although we’re expecting a hardcore African experience, the menu lays the emphasis on fusion. Of course, sweet potato, cassava and okra do make an appearance but so do broccoli and asparagus. Lawrence is adamant, however, that everything is inspired by the flavours of his homeland. None more so than his marinades, which make ample use of exotic herbs and spices, to transform usual restaurant staples like chargrilled sea bass and T-bone steak into something new.
We start with his signature dish of grilled tiger prawns, five of the big beasts in a red sizzling sauce. Clearly, chilli is involved and there’s a hefty after-kick, unusual in Mayfair. The marinade doesn’t overwhelm, however, and transforms what can be bland and boring into something exceptional.
Seared scallops, served in their shell, with chorizo and smoked paprika relish, share many of the same characteristics. The scallops are large enough to be able to cope with the saltiness of the chopped chorizo, and the paprika adds an extra zing. Both starters hint at good things to come.
Mains err on the fusion side although the Blackeye bean and plantain burger, with cassava fries, is a good African vegetarian option. We stick with fish. Honey glazed salmon, with a ginger, soy, sesame, chilli & lime dressing, nods towards Japan. The pepper is muted, countering some of the sweetness of the glaze, and the dressing lends a burst of flavour. I’m duty-bound to mention that it’s served with chopped Kenyan green beans.
Succulent fillets of Dover Sole with garlic and tarragon butter are definitely more Mayfair than Mombasa. That shouldn’t really surprise as Dover Street is just around the corner and this is an excellent piece of fish. It’s served with wild rocket and what the menu calls “lemon muslin”. I was thinking this might be a misprint but it’s actually half a lemon wrapped in cloth, to make it easier to squeeze.
With both, we get the chance to try another of Lawrence’s signature dishes, Ma’s Benachin rice, his mother’s secret recipe. In the Gambia, Benachin means one pot and the rice is cooked with a mixture of tomatoes, onions, chilli, salt and spices. You can see this in the colour of the grains, transformed from white to reddish-brown, yet the flavours are subtle, hovering in the background, rather than kicking you in the face.
So finally to desserts. Vanilla, either from Madagascar or Uganda, makes an appearance here and the PAPA-LOVA, Lawrence’s take on Pavlova, comes with vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries. There’s also a rum cake with vanilla gelato.
I’m intrigued by the vegan chocolate and avocado mousse where cream is replaced with coconut milk. It’s rich, thick and topped with a mix of summer berries coated in edible gold. I’ve never thought of mixing avocado and chocolate together but it works surprisingly well.
My partner goes for something more traditionally English. Lemon and honey posset with cinnamon fritters is another signature dish. The posset is light and creamy, perfect for spooning onto the cinnamon mini-doughnuts and ideal for sharing. It’s very good indeed.
If the idea of African food, or indeed African Fusion, puts you off I wouldn’t worry. Lawrence Gomez, aka Papa L, is a talented chef and none of his dishes should be outside your comfort zone. Instead what you get is a unique spin on the classics with his distinctive spice mix and marinades. The restaurant is a welcome newcomer to this part of London but it’s only scheduled to last until October. Better get down there as soon as you can.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT PAPA L’S KITCHEN
Dishes will change to reflect the seasons.
Starters from £9.50 to £17.50
Mains from £18 to £38
Sides from £3.50 to £6
Desserts from £9.50 to £12
Cocktails around £15
Papa L’s Kitchen 16-17 Jermyn Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6LT
Tuesday-Saturday 5pm till close